From South Orange Village President Sheena C. Collum and Board of Trustees members Bob Zuckerman, Donna Coallier, Karen Hilton, Steve Schnall, Summer Jones and Walter Clarke:
On Tuesday, May 28th a statement was issued by the state organizations representing police and firefighter unions in response to our municipal budget and our request for all employees to forgo two percent raises to balance our budget during this unprecedented global pandemic and to preserve jobs for all employees.
First, we’d like to thank our police officers and firefighters for their tremendous service during this pandemic. Our admiration, respect, and concern for our frontline employees remains strong even when presented with challenges related to financial negotiations. We also recognize that state unions have an important role to play in advocating on behalf of their members.
As shared with the public in mid-April, our community is facing the same dire budget circumstances seen throughout the state and country as it relates to a loss in revenue. It’s highly likely you or someone you know has been adversely impacted financially. The tragic loss of human life coupled with the adverse economic impact to families is devastating. Workers in both the public and private sectors are being laid off, furloughed, and/or expected to take drastic cuts in salaries and wages. Here in New Jersey, the numbers are heartbreaking, with over 1.1 million people filing for unemployment — that’s more than a 15 percent unemployment rate.
Here in South Orange, we pivoted quickly and thoughtfully in a manner that was fiscally prudent while devising strategies that would ensure continued employment of all our staff. We asked all employees to forgo pay raises equivalent to two percent for two years. For an employee earning $50,000 during a fiscal year, this would be $1,000; for an employee earning $100,000, it would be $2,000; for an employee making $150,000, it would be $3,000. Police officers and firefighters who were expecting to receive raises exceeding two percent were asked to contribute the equivalent of two percent to ensure parity and equity among all employees. This was not targeted at one group or “union busting”; all employees were asked to join in our shared sacrifice. Without agreements, we would have to implement demotions, layoffs and furloughs – something we do not want to do.
On April 23, we hosted a virtual meeting with local union leaders to share our budget shortfalls — a meeting that we thought went very well at the time. We shared with our union leaders how difficult our budget was going to be and that our governing body had two primary goals:
- Keep the “team” together. We explained at length that each and every employee in the village was valued and that we didn’t view anyone as expendable or less important than someone else. If everyone could share in sacrifice, we’d keep our team together and do our best to weather this storm.
- Minimize impact to our taxpayers. We shared stories of the personal struggles of our working families and noted that any approach asking taxpayers to do significantly more wouldn’t be an acceptable option. With a budget shortfall, we needed to look at controlling spending and not raising taxes.
We outlined in detail, as we did during our public budget workshops, the other cost cutting measures we were putting into place as we took a painful but holistic approach to every item in our community’s budget.
- Deferring previously anticipated new hires throughout various departments, which would increase workload for existing staff and affect services provided to residents
- Reductions to our Capital Improvement Fund, which would impact necessary infrastructure upgrades
- Ten percent reductions to all service level agreements including our South Orange Village Center Alliance, YouthNet, the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, the South Orange Performing Arts Center and Environmental Commission
- Elimination and reductions to various professional service agreements
In addition to controlling spending, we took the following measures:
- Used a one-time asset sale ($1.2 million) as a part of a redevelopment project to fill the gap, money that three months ago would have been utilized to advance capital projects such as our Baird Community Center and Public Library
- Applied the maximum amount of fund balance per policy, nearly $1.5 million, from savings
During the call, we were also asked to clarify whether this proposal would affect additional earnings outside of base pay for police and fire. It would not. Longevity, uniform allowances, stipends, overtime, side jobs, adherence to the step guide, and maintaining seniority would remain untouched as would benefits associated with providing quality healthcare and making pension payments. Below is an illustration of what the numbers would look like. The second column represents the impact of forgoing the equivalent of a 2% raise applied to base salary and that it would not affect total gross earnings.
Base Salary 2% Request 2019 Gross Total Earnings
Average Base 2% Raise High Low Median
Fire Superior Officers $122,292 $2,445.84 199,443.67 $127,538 $149,184
Firefighters $88,481 $1,769.62 $147,368 $53,271 $123,852
Police Superior Officers $136,092 $2,721.84 $202,333 $137,925 $168,014
Police Patrol Officers $89,150 $1,783 $175,941 $59,354 $113,472
To date, the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of our employees has been understanding and we are so grateful for that. We believe, while not ideal, what we requested was reasonable, fair and in good faith given our present circumstances; while at the same time accomplishing the two stated goals of avoiding layoffs and not passing our shortfalls along to our residents.
We’d also like to recognize two unions who have formally approved our request. The Superior Officers Association and the Teamsters Union. It is that spirit of collaboration and care for the community we all serve that will help us through these times.
Lastly, we’d like to point out that in South Orange, we have a collaborative and participatory budget process. We are guided by our Administrator, Chief Financial Officer, Finance and Capital Projects Committee, Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, and most importantly, our community. Meetings are open to the public.
To suggest that any members of our governing body are making decisions in secret, being less than transparent with the public, promoting political vendettas, acting in a retaliatory fashion, or making our community “less safe” is truly unfortunate discourse, and we need to rise above that.
We remain hopeful that we can pull together and deliver a budget that’s in the best interest of all our dedicated village employees and our South Orange community with the support of our local unions.
Sheena Collum, Village President; Summer Jones, Trustee; Karen Hilton, Trustee Chair, Finance and Capital Projects; Steve Schnall, Trustee; Donna Coallier, Trustee Member, Finance and Capital Projects; Bob Zuckerman, Trustee; Walter Clarke, Trustee Member, Finance and Capital Projects